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Confucius (551-479 BCE) was the essence of the ancient Chinese sage, a social philosopher, an educator, and the founder of the Ru School of Chinese thought.

It is recorded that altogether he had 3,000 disciples and 72 of them were influential. Confucius presents himself as a transmitter who invented nothing and his greatest emphasis may be the one on learning from the ancient sages. In this respect, he is mostly respected by Chinese people as a Great Teacher or Master. His teachings, preserved in the Analects, form the foundation of much of subsequent Chinese speculation on the education, government and comportment of the superior man. Confucius' influence in Chinese history can be compared with that of Socrates in the West.

Life of The Master

Confucius was born in Qufu of State Lu (now part of present-day Shandong Province) and died at the age of 72. As a child, Confucius is said to have enjoyed putting ritual vases on the sacrifice table. His first role was as a minor administrative manager in the State of Lu but he soon rose to the position of Justice Minister. He earned a reputation for fairness, politeness and love of learning. It is said that he studied ritual with the Daoist Master Lao Dan, music with Chang Hong, and the lute with Music-master Xiang.

At about the age of fifty, seeing no way to improve the government, he gave up his political career in Lu, and began a twelve year journey around China, seeking the "Way" and trying unsuccessfully to convince many different rulers of his political beliefs and to push them into reality.

Confucius returned home around his sixtieth year, and spent the remainder of his life teaching and editing the ancient classics. considered as a "Throneless king", he tried to share his experiences with his disciples and to transmit the old wisdom to the later generations.

Confucius and the Unity of Li and Ren

To western readers, Confucius is chiefly regarded as a wise man speaking in aphorisms or moral maxims, which hardly suffices to explain the depth of the influence of Confucianism. Without a deeper unity of belief, no mere collection of aphorisms could dominate a nation’s history as Confucianism has dominated China’s. It would be impossible, therefore, to arrive at a full appreciation of the influence and the prestige of Confucius without an understanding of the systems of Confucian ideas as a system.

Confucius' social philosophy largely revolves around the concepts of li (rites or ritual rules) and ren (humanity). The system of ritual rules valued by Confucius came originally from the Western Zhou dynasty (1066 BCE-771 BCE) and lasted for 300 years until the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC). But in the Spring and Autumn Period, the authentic power of the royal house of the Zhou dynasty was declining and that of the princes of the feudal states was rising. Military wars between states and political intrigues within states were intensified by weak kings, ambitious princes and greedy officials. The old social order was destroyed and those rules of ritual lost their power and influence. This is what is often called ‘the decline of Zhou rites’. Different schools, such as Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism and Legalism came into being during the time to deal with the problems generated by this decline. While other schools held a negative attitude toward Zhou rites, Confucius always took a positive approach towards them.

Mozi, the founder of the Mohist school, criticised the ritual of the Zhou because he evaluated the rites from a quasi-utilitarian point of view. Thus he judged that the funeral observances and music in Zhou rites were a waste of the wealth and energy of the people. He therefore was against music and advocated an economical approach to funerals.

The fundamental spirit of Daoism is a kind of high degree freedom, which can be described as unfettered, integrated with the world, and dependent on nothing. Daoism considered Zhou rites to be artificial, false, external and a formal constraint on our lives. Laozi stated that propriety is ‘a superficial expression of loyalty and faithfulness, and the beginning of disorder.’ For him, the Zhou rites are also superficial and forced: ‘the highest propriety takes action, and in case no one responds, it turns up its sleeves and drags one near.’

Confucian Music 

Confucius not only said interesting things, he sang them and accompanied himself on a kind of zither. It is said that Confucius accompanied himself on a 'qin' (a kind of zither) while singing the odes of the Classic of Poetry. We don't know what Confucius' zither may have looked like, but in popular accounts of his life, the image of the philosopher-musician became firmly established.

Confucius had clear ideas about the importance of music. He said: “Let a man be stimulated by poetry, established by the rules of propriety, perfected by music.” For Confucius, not only does music reflect the feelings of man, it can mould man’s character. This is because the harmony which is the essence of music can find its way into the depths of the human heart.

The nature of man is initially quiet and calm, but when it is affected by the external world, it begins to have desires. When the desires are not properly controlled and our conscious minds are distracted by the material world, we lose our true selves and the principle of reason in Nature is destroyed and man is submerged in his own desires. From this arise rebellion, disobedience, cunning and deceit, and general immorality. This is the way of chaos.

Music, which springs from the inner movement of the soul, can and should go into the inner recesses of the soul. Good music is that which leads to the introspection of one’s mind and heart. The ancient sage-kings instituted ritual and music not only to satisfy our desires of the ear and the eye and the mouth and the stomach, but to have the right taste or right likes and dislikes and restore the human order to its normalcy.

Therefore, the superior man tries to create harmony in the human heart by a rediscovery of human nature, and tries to promote music as a means to the perfection of human culture. When such music prevails and the people’s minds are led towards the right ideals and aspirations, we may see the appearance of a great nation.

According to Confucius, musical training is the most effective method for changing the moral character of man and keeping society in order.

Another school called Legalism opposed Zhou rites from a practical point of view. The goal of the legalists was a wealthy and powerful state, very different from the Confucian vision of an ordered world of peace, harmony, and simple contentment. In a world where the great powers were girding themselves for battles, they offered themselves as experts in the arts of enriching and strengthening the state. In order to suit the great social changes at that time, legalism advocated the destruction of ancient hierarchical distinctions. The very idea of law, an impersonal and impartial force to regulate the relationship between the individual and the state, meant the overthrow of the ethics of Confucius with its hangover of feudalistic elements - Zhou rites.

But Confucius himself had great respect for the Zhou rites, believing they had attained a perfect state: ‘The Zhou had the advantages of surveying the two proceeding dynasties. How resplendent is its culture (wen)! I follow Zhou’, he wrote. And Confucius saw the decline of the rites as a consequence of the effete life style of the noble class. He argued that a system of perfectly designed rules of prosperity cannot be enforced by people without any virtue. If so, the Zhou rites became a kind of hollow formalism. Confucius insisted that the problem was not in the rites themselves, but in the people who no longer followed them. In order to regain the validity of the rites, the people needed to be able to practice them in their daily life. Thus Confucius gave life to the Zhou rites by introducing a new concept--- humanity (ren). In this way, Confucius has turned attention from objective morality towards the moral subject. In the process, he integrates li (ritual rules) and ren (virtue of humanity) into one moral theory.

For him, on the one hand, ren is the essence and content of li. In performing the li, what must be emphasised is that one has to perform li with the correct attitude. For example, when performing a sacrifice, one has to feel reverence for the spirits; when carrying out the rites of mourning, one has to feel grief for the decreased. So when his disciple Lin Fang asked about the foundation of ceremonies (li). Confucius said, ‘An important question indeed. In rituals or ceremonies, be thrifty rather than extravagant, and in funerals, be deeply sorrowful rather than shallow in sentiment.’ Similarly, in serving his lord, a minister was to be respectful; in governing his people, a ruler was to be benevolent. Without this emotional component, ritual becomes a hollow performance. Confucius remarked: ‘A man who does not have humanity, what can he have to do with ritual? A man who does not have humanity, what can he have to do with music?’ Acting in conformity with the rules of proper conduct requires an inner dimension for its foundation. Otherwise, ritual will only be the mechanism of regulating people’s behaviour.

In this respect, Confucianism contrasts with Legalism which advocated bringing the masses into line by a severe system of penal law. As Confucius said, ‘Lead the people with governmental measures and regulate them by law and punishment, and they will avoid wrongdoing but will have no sense of honour and shame. Lead them with virtue and regulate them by the rules of propriety, and they will have a sense of shame and, moreover, set themselves right and arrive at goodness.’

On the other hand, for Confucius, li is concrete manifestation and expression of ren. Although ren as an inner morality is not caused by the mechanism of li from outside, it needs li to express itself. Li can be conceived as an externalisation of ren in a specific social context. No matter how abstract it appears, ren almost by definition requires concrete manifestation. To use the remark made by Mou Zongsan, ren needs ‘windows’ to expose itself to the outside world, otherwise it will become suffocated. Ren is expressed and fulfilled in actions in accordance with li.

It is said in the Analects that when Confucius offered sacrifice to his ancestors, he felt as if his ancestral spirits were actually present. When he offered sacrifice to other spiritual beings, he felt as if they were actually present. What Confucius values in ancestor worship is not any formal accordance with ritual rules but the unifying effects it has on the living to cultivate or find the feeling of love and reverence, or in short, ren-feeling in oneself.

This is why Confucius on the one hand, warned his disciple Zizhang that li did not consist in playing about with sacrificial vessels, just as music did not consist in the mere beating of bells and drums; on the other hand, he thought that both ritual and music emanated from, and created, a state of mind, a state of God-fearing piety in the performance of ritual and a state of happiness and harmony in the performance of music.

Since performing li is not a process of following ritual rules mechanically, but a process that shows and embodies one’s feelings, will and emotions, consciously performing li leads one to find and nourish ren feeling in oneself and thus has a specific function in the cultivation of personal character.

Confucius emphasised both the importance of li to ren and of ren to li without assuming the primacy of either concept. The relation between li and ren could perhaps be described as approximating to the relation between form and substance in Western philosophy. It seems that the distinction between virtue and rule becomes obscured and the conflict, between virtue ethics and rule-based systems in contemporary Western ethics, never becomes real in Confucius’ moral theory.

Doubtless, Confucius, if living in our time and acknowledging this conflict, would think it fruitless and far detached from reality or moral practice. For him, it is unimaginable that moral rules and virtues can be understood separately. Or at least, he would agree with those Western moral philosophers who see the ethics of virtue and the ethics of rule as adding up, rather than as cancelling each other out. Indeed, it was the unity of li and ren by Confucius himself that marked a qualitative break in Chinese intellectual history.

The Analects record His Master's Voice' 

When the root is firmly established, the Way (Dao) will grow. Filial piety and brotherly respect are the root of humanity (ren) (1:3) .

ii. All within the four seas (the world) are brothers. (12: 5)

iii. In education, there should be no class distinction. (15: 38)


A large part of an early version of this article was taken from the entry on Confucius by Yuli Liu in 'Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics', edited by Martin Cohen, (Hodder Arnold 2006) and donated to the Citizendium by the authors.